Wildlife Refuges:

Trends in Funding, Staffing, Habitat Management, and Visitor Services for Fiscal Years 2002 through 2007

GAO-08-1179T: Published: Sep 24, 2008. Publicly Released: Sep 24, 2008.

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The National Wildlife Refuge System, which is administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of the Interior, comprises 585 refuges on more than 96 million acres of land and water that preserve habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds, threatened and endangered species, and other wildlife. Refuges also provide wildlife-related activities such as hunting and fishing to about 40 million visitors every year. GAO was asked to testify on a report that is being released today, Wildlife Refuges: Changes in Funding, Staffing, and Other Factors Create Concerns about Future Sustainability (GAO-08-797), which (1) describes changing factors that the refuge system experienced from fiscal years 2002 through 2007, including funding and staffing changes, and (2) examines how habitat management and visitor services changed during this period. For this report, GAO surveyed all refuges, visited 19 refuges in four regions, and interviewed refuge, regional, and national officials.

In its September 2008 report, GAO reports that for fiscal years 2002 through 2007, the refuge system experienced funding and staffing fluctuations, the introduction of several new policy initiatives, and the increased influence of external factors such as extreme weather that threaten wildlife habitat and visitor infrastructure. Although core funding--measured as obligations for refuge operations, maintenance, and fire management--increased each year, inflation-adjusted core funding peaked in fiscal year 2003 at about $391 million--6.8 percent above fiscal year 2002 funding. Inflation-adjusted core funding ended the period 2.3 percent below peak levels, but 4.3 percent above fiscal year 2002 levels by fiscal year 2007. Core refuge staffing levels peaked in fiscal year 2004 at 3,610 full-time equivalents--10.0 percent above the fiscal year 2002 level--and then declined more slowly than funding. By fiscal year 2007, staffing levels fell to 4.0 percent below peak levels, but 5.5 percent above fiscal year 2002 levels. Through fiscal year 2007, the number of permanent employees utilized by the refuge system declined to 7.5 percent below peak levels. During this period, refuge system officials initiated new policies that: (1) reduced staff positions and reconsidered how they allocate funds and staff among refuges in order to better align staff levels with funding, (2) required refuge staff to focus on a legislative mandate to complete refuge conservation plans by 2012, (3) shifted to constructing a larger number of smaller visitor structures, such as informational kiosks, and fewer large visitor centers to spread visitor service funds across more refuges, (4) increased the number of full-time law enforcement officers and their associated training requirements, and (5) resulted in additional administrative work. During this period, external factors, such as severe storms, that complicate refuge staffs' ability to protect and restore habitat quality also increased. GAO's survey of refuge managers showed that changes in habitat management and visitor service programs varied across refuges during the study period. Habitat conditions for key types of species improved about two times more often than they worsened, but between 7 and 20 percent of habitats were of poor quality in 2007. Certain habitat problems increased at more than half of refuges during thisperiod, and managers reported that they increased the time spent on certain habitat management activities, such as addressing invasive plants, despite declining staffing levels. However, several managers GAO interviewed said that staff were working longer hours without extra pay to get work done, and managers expressed concern about their ability to sustain habitat conditions. While the quality of four key visitor service programs was reported to be stable or improving between fiscal years 2002 and 2007 at the vast majority of refuges, the other two key programs--environmental education and interpretation--were considered poor quality at one-third of refuges in 2007. Changes in the time spent on visitor services varied considerably across refuges, and managers noted that visitor services are generally cut before habitat management activities when resources are limited. Managers are concerned about their ability to provide high quality visitor services in the future given staffing and funding constraints.

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